Punjab: Wagah/Attari Border Ceremony and a birthday

Good morning all,
So, before we begin with today’s visit to the India/Pakistan border, I should make a little ‘teaser’ announcement… As you all are aware, I am expecting a number of important life events to occur while I’m in India.  Big life changing moment #1 was my Amrit ceremony at the beginning of December.  Big life changing moment #2 is coming up.  Stay tuned.  Nope.  That’s all you’re getting for now.  Don’t even ask.  Seriously all, stop asking and stay tuned.  bwahahaha

On to the Wagah/Attari Border.  This is the border crossing near Amritsar on the India/Pakistan Border.  It has a border closing ceremony every afternoon or almost every afternoon, at 4 or 4:30 or possible 5 or 5:30, whenever they get around to it really.  It’s done on Indian time, which is just like northern time.

You park about 1.5 km from the actual border and then walk in.  The men and women are separated during the walk, because the men get patted down and searched about 5 times on their side by male border guards and the women get the same on their side, behind curtains by female border guards.  5 times.  That’s pretty thorough.

I don’t know if it’s normally like that but it’s a good thing, I suppose.  Only a few weeks prior, someone exploded a bomb at the border during the ceremony, killing at least 55 people and injuring about 200 more.  The bombing was done by a suicide bomber near the first security checkpoint on the Pakistani side of the border.  Since then, I expect what used to be a 0.5 km walk was extended by the extra full kilometre and the security pat downs became that much more thorough.

The host unit was worried about going to the border, but only if the bomb had gone off at the arena itself or on the Indian side itself… okay.  Don’t know what to do with that really.  We went anyway because that it what you do, you don’t bow to a madman’s attempt at terror.  People here get on with there lives and they do it pretty quickly.  Good on them.

People pile in from both countries separated by a large gate running down the middle.  The Wagah Border Station on the Indian side of the border is in charge of the ceremony apparently.  On this side, they play loud, upbeat music to get the crowd dancing.  They have a guy in a white gym suit work up the crowd as well.  This goes on for a long time, until 4:30 or 5 or 5:30… you get the idea.  They allow a few of the audience members on the Indian side to come down into the roadway which leads through the two countries.  Then they line that group up, give them Indian flags and have them run up to the gates with them, chanting, singing and striking poses while at the gate, then running back in a sort of relay.  Surprisingly, that really gets the crowd going.  It was mostly young women carrying the flags back and forth.  They did a great job keeping the spirit of friendly competition going.

There was a guy right behind me who could be heard at all four corners of the Earth… he was shouting “Hindustan Zindabad” (“India Forever”), and other slogans that I didn’t understand because Hindi.  I didn’t get into those but the crowd sure did.

Once the roadway was cleared of the flag runners, they opened the gates on both sides and a group of 8 or 9 border guards in the fancier dress came out to the front of the border station.  Each would, alone or in pairs, do the strangest duck walk sort of march up to the gates, stomp around a bit to the ear-splitting cheers of the crowd, and then make a pose right in front of their counterpart at the gate.  Finally, when this bit of marching/duck walking/posing was done, they lowered the flags on either side of the gates, and closed the gates.  Ceremony over.

It wasn’t much of a ceremony but it was fun and the crowd really got into it, which is what made the ceremony worth attending.  Once the gates were closed on either side, the loud music suddenly got louder and people from our side of the border entered the roadway to dance for a while.  There wasn’t much dancing happening on the Pakistani side of the border but they seemed to be having enough fun waving flags and cheering.

After the ceremony, we enjoyed some chai from the canteen along with some sort of veg pastry.  I’m getting used to the fact that they put veg in everything here.  Everything.  Even your morning oatmeal will have some carrots and peas so why not most forms of pastry?  (If you want proof, check out Quaker Oats advertising for India for instant oatmeal, go ahead… I’ll wait……………………………………….  See????  ).It was tasty even if I had no clue what it was supposed to be.

There was a street dog begging at my feet at the canteen.  So I slipped him a little of the veg pastry.  He was having none of it.  I should have been slightly worried about that… but I wasn’t.

I lost the lens cap for my camera at the Wagah border arena but I wasn’t about to go back to hunt for it in that space… so… my loss.

The host unit wanted to rush back to the parking lot when we were done.  However, little sister and I were enjoying the walk so we dawdled.  That is until the host unit began with:  “Indian people x and Canadian people y” and “In India, x and in Canada, y.”  Yo, hold up, H.U.  You know nothing about Canada and not once have I done that to you so back the truck up.  That’s right, the truck.  You know which truck I mean.  I bit my tongue and told her that Canada has too great a diversity of people and cultures to just stereotype the entire place (kind of like India I wanted to shout at her).  There’s a whole complex we have in Canada over our ‘identity’ for that reason.  So … just.  stop.   talking.  now.  please.  no.  seriously.  stop.

Just as we were getting back to the parking area, we were clearing the usual lines of people wanting to sell souvenirs, when I heard “Look, a Muslim.”  What the frack?  Sadly, I look right at the host unit to see if she is the one who said it… because well, we’ll get to that when we talk about the tragedy in Peshawar.  It wasn’t the host unit.  It was little sister… and the tall Muslim man in the blue sweater waiting for someone at the end of the security check points?  The one she was pointing at?  Was looking right at her with a look of disappointment on his face.  Sorry tall man in the blue sweater.  Truly sorry.

I asked whether she knew any Muslim people personally.  She said no.  I suggested she make an effort to meet some, since there are plenty in Amritsar that should be easy…  me’thinks little sister and I will visit a mosque in town soon.   I asked her to think about how she would feel if someone pointed at her and said “Look a Sikh.”  or  “Look an Indian.”  or  “Look a thin girl.”  or for any other reason.  Maybe she’ll understand better after the mosque?  Never had this issue with my own kid so any suggestions out there would be so welcome.

Anyhow, on to the birthday or gurpurab to Sikhs.  Yesterday, we celebrated the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, our tenth Guru.  He was actually born December 22, 1666 at Patna to Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji and Mata Gujari (the grandmother in my previous posts about the Shahebzadas).  He was our last living Guru.  He lost all four of his sons before breathing his last on October 6, 1708 at Nanded.  Before he died, he passed the guruship to Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji (our holy book) and to the Khalsa Panth which he created in 1699.

He was a great warrior, a great leader and a man of great compassion.  You can read more about him at Guru Gobind Singh Ji.  His story is long, complex, interesting and much to much to include here in this post, but some highlights:

– He was only 9 years old when he became the Guru after his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed by the Mughals for refusing to convert to Islam, thereby saving the Hindu populace from forced conversion.  He himself encouraged his father’s sacrifice for this cause.

– He created the Khalsa, an important Sikh institution in 1699.

– He hired 52 poets in his court and was a patron of all manner of art.

– He spent much of his guruship in battle due to Mughal persecution of the Sikhs.

– He developed a scholarly centre at Damdama, near Bhatinda.

– None of his poetry appears in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji but instead, it is compiled in the Dasam Granth.  Gursikhs repeat his Jap Sahib every day.


– He brought Sanskrit scholars to Anandpur Sahib after the teaching of Sanskrit was outlawed by the Mughals.

– He gave Sikhs our unique identity, the gifts of the five kakkar or 5 K’s – kesh (unshorn hair), khanga (a wooden comb), kara (iron bracelet), kacchera (breeches) and kirpan (a curved blade) and our brotherhood, the Khalsa.

– He was stabbed by the Nawab of Sirhind at Nanded in March 1708.  The new emperor, Emperor Bahadur Shah sent expert surgeons but the wound never healed properly.  After re-opening the wound, Guruji died in October, 1708.

– He exposed many false pandits or “holy men” who were just out the fool or take advantage of the populace.  One of my favourite stories about him involved Pandit Keshaodat from Kashi.  Pandit Keshaodat told Guru Gobind Singh Ji that he and some other pandits could make the Goddess Devi (an important Hindu goddess) appear if the Guru arranged for teh materials for a Yagna (a ceremony).  Guru Gobind Singh Ji knew no goddess would appear so he arranged for the materials to expose the pandits.  The Pandits did not expect him to do this, so they had to up their game.   They then said that Devi would only appear if a very holy soul was sacrificed to her.  Guruji suggested that Pandit Keshaodat himself honour Devi with such a sacrifice as he was a holy man.  The pandit ran.  Bye-bye.

– Guru Gobind Singh Ji, before his death, put part of the Sikh army in the charge of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur.  This warrior would go on not only to punish the Mughals in the Punjab who had caused so much persecution but also to shape the beginnings of what would become the Sikh empire.  There was a sect of Sikhs at the time who considered Baba Banda Singh Bahadur Ji to be the eleventh Guru.

So, what shall we talk about next time, huh?  We will visit a farming village in Punjab, complete with a buffalo who tried to pee on me.  I know you all will enjoy that story but what else shall we talk about?   How about I introduce you to the tailor?  I like the tailor, he’s awesome.  He’s got a wicked sense of humour (I think) and a stellar memory.  He’s made me a lot of suits and that’s been a bit of a challenge for us what with the language issues and all.  Yeah, let’s talk about how to get clothes made when neither the customer or the tailor has a common language.

That’s settled then.  In the meantime, it is December 29th when I am writing this but it won’t be published for a week.  So HAPPY FREAKIN’ NEW YEAR world!  I hope 2015 brings all of you the most amazing blessings, lots of love, lots of great memories, and just enough challenges to keep you from taking any of it for granted but no more than that.

Peace and love
– Himmatpreet

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